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Rajiv Gandhi-the 21st century Prime Minister of the 20th century
Sunday August 21, 2016 0:05 AM, I.Ramamohan Rao, ANI

Rajiv Gandhi

New Delhi:
India remembered former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the occasion of his 72nd birth anniversary today. It has been 25 years since Sri Lankan terrorists in Tamil Nadu assassinated the youthful leader. Rajiv Gandhi was a reluctant politician and yet, once responsibility was thrust upon him, he had a clear vision of how he wanted to change the way India functioned.

I was witness to the circumstances under which Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. I interacted with him during the Asian Games in 1982 in New Delhi and later during the Non-Aligned Summit in 1983 also in New Delhi, when he took an active interest and helped his mother Indira Gandhi in organising the two events. I was entrusted with the responsibility of organising communications at both events and interacted with him. Rajiv Gandhi had an eye for detail and gave precise and concise instructions.

But his internship did not last long. On October 31, 1984, Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her son Rajiv was in Calcutta. I was working as Director (News Services) at the All India Radio. We were aware that she had been shot and the first reports were that she would not survive. But we did not go ahead with that news. Reports had started coming in that there were outbreaks of violence in Delhi and elsewhere. The political decision had been taken that Rajiv Gandhi would be sworn in as Prime Minister. Everybody was curious whether the young man had it in him to lead the nation of almost a billion people with little or no political experience and virtually no administrative experience. Moreover, he was facing the enormous tragedy of losing his mother in such a violent manner.

But a stoic Rajiv Gandhi arrived in New Delhi and went straight to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The world did not see him weep. If he cried, it was in the solitude of his home. None of the Gandhis shed a tear in the days that followed the assassination. Rajiv and his young family went through the last rites and as soon as they were over, he got down to business. Delhi was in the throes of terrible rioting, which was spreading to other parts of North India. Did Rajiv delay in cracking down on the violence is a subject of much debate. He called in the army to quell the violence. Subsequently, he held talks with Sikh leaders and concluded the Rajiv-Longowal Accord.

In his initial months as Prime Minister, a young Rajiv had a child like optimism about the functioning of the government. I was appointed as Principal Information Officer to the Government of India during his tenure. His brief to me was clear and concise, to facilitate the media and disseminate information in a fair manner.

The media was eating out of his hands. Despite the anti-Sikh riots of '84, the media was soft on the young Prime Minister. He too had an easy and comfortable relationship with the media. Rajiv knew many editors on a first name basis, he would chat with photographers about lenses and angles, as he was keen on photography.

As the spokesman of the Government of India during Rajiv Gandhi's Prime Ministership, I recall I did not have much convincing to do in informing people that the new Prime Minister had a modern vision of India in the 21st century. Rajiv wanted India to be a modern and a technologically advanced nation. It was an idea that faced some resistance from the old guard of his own party and some in the government who were skeptical about his new ideas.

Rajiv Gandhi told the nation repeatedly that India had missed the Industrial Revolution, but it could not afford to miss the Technological Revolution.

Rajiv Gandhi set up the National Informatics Centre, made it easier to import computers, and set up Technology Missions that today provide communication to each village across the country, make available drinking water to millions of villagers, promote literacy, provide healthcare and ushered in a White Revolution.

If Jawaharlal Nehru was the architect of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Rajiv Gandhi worked for strengthening peace in South Asia and helped in establishing the SAARC. He visited Bangladesh when it was under strain following floods there, and signed the India-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. In spite of Pakistan's role in promoting a proxy war in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, he visited Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto was its Prime Minister, and hoped to open up a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Rajiv Gandhi also took steps to improve relations with China. In spite of the incidents along the border, which made India give a strong response, he visited China and tried his best to improve bilateral relations with that country. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China extended support to the initiatives taken by Rajiv Gandhi and the firm handshake that he extended on December 22, 1988 in Beijing will be remembered forever.

Rajiv Gandhi established close relations with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Rajiv Gandhi's address to the United Nations on nuclear disarmament in the world is still remembered as an important document.

Rajiv Gandhi made mistakes too, which cost him dearly. The amendment of the Constitution to annul the judgment in the Shah Bano case, which provided relief to a Muslim woman divorcee, was the first one. The attempt to have the Defamation Bill passed by Parliament, which put the onus on the defender, was the next one.

And, looking back, his reaction to the allegations that Rs. 64 crores had been offered to someone close in the government in the Bofors deal, gave rise to a controversy that never died down, and he lost the general elections in 1989.

Finally, his dealing with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which played a negative role in the implementation of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, eventually cost him his life. Even his most critical opponents felt that Rajiv Gandhi had learnt from the mistakes that he made in the second half of his term. Had he lived longer, he might have been a better prime minister in his second term and would have seen the 21st century that he was so looking forward to.

[I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer to the Government of India. He can be reached on his e-mail:]

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